This Is What I’m Doing Instead of Posting…

It’s a paper. Read it if you like John Barth, Freud, or Existentialism and Nihilism expressed as an Academic Love Triangle. If you do like those things, God help you…

    Nothing stays buried. This is the central lesson of psychoanalysis and the most important thing Freud has to teach us about the way the human mind works, especially as it exists in fiction. The characters we have discussed think that they can banish those things they do not want to deal with from their thoughts and so from their lives. But all they have done is to remove them from the immediate vicinity. These unacknowledged drives and unspeakable desires will continue to lurk just outside their awareness, like an unruly man whose “ill-mannered laughter, chattering and shuffling with his feet” cause him to be forcibly removed from a lecture hall, and like that banished lecture-goer they will continue to make a ruckus that disturbs the mind until they can be reconciled with the other aspects of the characters’ psyches.”[1]

            We’ve seen it again and again over the course of this seminar. In the The Sopranos[2] Tony Soprano tries to be both a family man and a Family man, and so occasionally has to suppress certain aspects of his life in the mafia so that he will be free to engage in more normal relations with his lower-case f family. He is not often successful, as the very drives and instincts that make him a good capo can interfere with domestic bliss. Even something as simple as a trip with his daughter to visit potential colleges can erupt in violent mob business at any time. He is forced to switch from the jovial, concerned (if not overly involved) father figure to brutal killer, grunting and gasping through the garroting of an old snitch. His role in the mob is basically a place where his id reigns supreme. There is something childlike in the way that the crew behaves, giving in to whatever desire happens to occur at any given moment. Tony has grown over the course of the series, physically if not emotionally and this is due no doubt to his tendency to indulge appetites. Whether it’s for ziti or for extramarital affairs, Tony will satisfy most any urge as soon as he feels it. Surrounded by strippers, alcohol, drugs, and the expectation that violence can burst forth at any minutes the mafia members treat the Bada-Bing as their own personal playground, where their juvenile preoccupations are given total control. Tony runs into problems when he moves from his Cosa Nostra conception of self in the world of men, to the more female driven world of the domestic sphere. It is not these two modes are entirely incompatible, but they are opposed enough that David Chase has been able to spend six seasons exploring how Tony deals with navigating between them.

            We see the same sort of tension in the paranoid viewing experience of Slither, where Dick emerges from a period of incarceration and has trouble integrating himself into the free world. Like Tony, Dick has trouble making the transition between a world of men, and the outside world. The entire film feels like one long paranoid fever dream as he comes to terms with his new position. Dick, ironically named and perpetually lacking any masculine authority, occupies a stereotypically feminine role of passivity and acceptance. He drifts through the many strange occurrences of the film without any sense of will or purpose, accepting the bizarre people and situations with a placidness that borders on the pathological. He is so distanced from the world around him that he fails to succumb to that oceanic feeling that we expect given the circumstance (like the pursuit of the alien-like vans). For Dick, unlike any true paranoid, “these figures forfeit any uncanny quality that might otherwise attach to them.”[3] Dick is so caught up in his distancing devices that he is unable to emerge whole, even when the stereotypically masculine assertiveness of Kitty (another ironic appellation) pushes him into sexual contact.

            Unlike Tony or Dick, Dr. Henry Jekyll is acutely aware of the discrepancy between his desires and his position in a civilized society in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He is an upstanding member of the London medical profession, and he wishes to commit lewd and immoral acts stemming from his “impatient gaiety of disposition”[4]. For him this is an impossible set of premises to reconcile and so he goes seeking a way to escape his dilemma by creating a secondary physiognomy with which he can keep the fulfillment of his darkest desires entirely separate from his public face. He approaches his suspension between two untenable positions as an exercise in scientific problem solving. Tellingly, he is less concerned with suppressing his desires (which are never described in any great detail but seem to revolve around sexual acts) than in seeking a means by which he might satisfy them without suffering recriminations. He is unique among our narrative analysands in that he actively searches for a way to integrate his desires into his life. Of course, he fails because his methods are inherently flawed. Rather than settle on the psychoanalytic couch and determine the causes of his urges and work to truly integrate the drive in to his psyche he creates a literal mechanism of repression, where his darkest, most primal instincts can play out without involving his higher self. The formula he creates to distill his id into the person of Edward Hyde opens new avenues for the expression of his will, but it proves unstable as Hyde truly becomes a separate person. Hyde is the stronger of the two and Jekyll can no longer maintain his own identity with any consistency.

            Lack of consistent identity surfaces again in the world of The Crying of Lot 49[5]. Oedipa Maas inhabits a world where paranoia seems an admirable survival trait, yet she begins to have serious trouble distinguishing the real from the not so real and by extension in separating the self and the not-self. She vacillates between the death drive and the erotic drive because she has no clear understanding of herself. Her experience with her deranged psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarious has given her no real insight into her drives and so she looks to the outside world to understand her inner state. The world becomes a kind of text for her and she is in a constant state of integrative synthesis, reading events and allusions in search of a pattern. She sees conspiracies behind several corners and Pynchon refuses to give the reader any closure or privilege one interpretation over another. For Oedipa, and so for us, the multiplicity of meanings requires us to seek a “secret richness and hidden density of dreams.” The importance of dreams is a significant component of Freudian interpretation, and the entire novel could be read as an extended dream state where ambiguity is the norm as much for Oedipa as it was for Schreber. Like Oedipa, Schreber was so desperate for meaning that he saw in his dreams and delusions a divine interference that literally transformed him into a direct object of God’s desire.

            While Oedipa Maas seeks her meaning by constructing patterns from random chaos, so too does Bruno read deeper meaning into the possession of objects in Strangers on a Train.[6] Like Freud’s “impractical Londoners” Bruno cannot get free of the past, and for its sake he neglects what is real and immediate[7] to focus his attention on outside objects. His latent homosexual tendencies and homicidal inclinations drive him to be  so prone to fetishization that he becomes attached to two different objects, holding on to the glasses of the dead woman as both a means of blackmail and a solid representation of murder. Bruno gives a similar focus on Guy’s lighter. Rather than deal with his attraction to Guy or his violence with the ex-wife, Bruno becomes attached to his souvenirs as a means of repressing these feelings. Like the Rat Man, who accords unfounded importance and obsessional devotion to paying for his pince-nez glasses Bruno is willing to go to great lengths to retain possession of his objects, going so far as to refuse to let anyone else use the lighter and to reach into (an evocative if not allegorical) dark, dirty, sewer grate when he temporarily drops it.

            We have a tendency to repress those things that bother us, those drives and desires that don’t fit into our conception of self. It is when we are suspended in an untenable position between our id-based impulses and the symbolic internalization of the father figure and cultural regulations that the super-ego represents that the ego must struggle to reconcile the two opposing forces. Freud informs us that we reach the balance when the oedipal conflict is resolved. But it is not always a successful process, and over the course of this seminar we have studied several cases where the synthesis of internal drives into a harmonious psyche has been arrested in one stage or another. We have looked at the way psychoanalytic theory has shaped the understanding of the unconscious mind and the ways in which the component parts of the subconscious can manifest and control our waking lives. By understanding what Freud had to say about the mechanics of the way the human mind works, as students of literature, we can look at the psychological makeup of our characters and see the conflicts that drive their actions. There are inherent similarities between the protagonists of the works we have read. They are all flawed human beings, and therefore interesting. Freud has given us an angle of attack for approaching these characters, a hermeneutic tool for interpretation. The multiplicity of variations on unconscious drives can make this interpretation a messy proposition. But then, most human enterprises are. 

Triangle Therapy: Psychoanalysis and The End of the Road

The End of the Road[8] is a strange place for any novelist to start, but for John Barth’s second novel it was as good a place as any. It is both a novel of ideas, and a novel of relationships, and it is an exploration of the way they each one can be mutually destructive to the other. The End of the Road shares some thematic concerns with Barth’s first novel: chiefly love triangles, suicide and nihilism. But whereas The Floating Opera approached the problems of its plot with a kind of nihilistic glee, Barth takes an even darker turn in his sophomore effort. Instead of the nihilistic comedy of Todd Andrews decision to live, Barth ends his second novel with a tragedy.

            Barth gives us the narrative of Jacob Horner, a young man who suffers from a rare kind of hysterical paralysis stemming from his inability to choose between alternatives.  A mysterious Doctor who specializes in just Jacob’s sort of immobilization takes his case, and it is on the medical advice of the nameless Doctor that Jacob takes a teaching job at Wicomeco State Teachers College. The Doctor instructs Jacob to teach prescriptive grammar, and while he is interviewing for the position he meets Joe Morgan. Joe is doctoral student of history with a keenly defined set of philosophical positions; he is Jacob Horner’s opposite number in nearly every respect, assured where Jacob is tentative and committed where Jacob is capricious. The two men become friends as Jacob gets to know Joe Morgan and his wife Rennie, who shares her husband’s way of thinking and has patterned herself upon the stronger man. It isn’t long before the Morgans’ beliefs are put to the test when Jacob and Rennie sleep together. The three enter  a love triangle that is much more about philosophy and the exploration of interpersonal dynamics of as it is about passion. Rennie becomes pregnant, and the inability to accurately determine the father drives her to seek suicide rather than carry the child to term, but when Jacob convinces the Doctor to perform an abortion to prevent her from self-terminating, things go wrong and she dies.

            It is impossible to understand the narrative arc of the novel without paying particular attention to the main characters. Jacob, our narrator, presents as a hysterical case driven to immobility by his lack of will. Joe Morgan is his polar opposite, an expression of overpowering will who can’t help but dominate those around him. Making up the third leg of the triangle is Rennie, who is similar to Jacob in many ways and serves as the battleground of the two men and the philosophical premises they embody. At the center of the action is the relationship between the three main characters. Throughout the novel each character relates to the others as extensions of themselves, their own desires and preoccupations. This, combined with the fact that they play a number of roles to each other, makes their triangle especially susceptible to psychoanalytic interpretation. It is also worth looking at the ways in which Jacob Horner’s Cosmopsis presents, and the psychic implications of such a state of being. This leads naturally to the character of the Doctor and what his actions represent in terms of psychological insight into the human condition.

                                                Jacob Horner: Vacuum for a Self

Jacob Horner is our guide, bringing the reader along all three legs of the developing triangle. When first we meet our narrator, he is unsure of himself. His inability to make decisions between available alternatives combined with his ability to see all alternatives has rendered him incapable of act. He is a “placid depressive” who says his “lows were low, but my highs were middle-register”[9] Unable to act, he has transferred his will completely to others. Barth makes it clear from the opening line that this is Jacob Horner’s central problem, as he conceives his identity as being open to debate. He himself is open to the idea that while in a sense he is Jacob Horner, there may well be some sense that he is not. He has no lasting moods, and he views the ones that come upon him as transient and temporary, like the weather. 

            From his description of the Progress and Advice room, he makes it clear that he has subjected himself to the control of the other. In the Doctor, Barth gives us the first example of the Name of the Father that Jacob submits to. He is seeking a kind of domination, a place where a father figure can make all his decisions for him.[10] This sets up a pattern that continues throughout the novel, from the consultation with the Doctor to Jacob’s answer of “Either day, sir”[11] to the president of the Wicomico State Teacher’s College, on to the central relationship of the story between Jacob and Joe Morgan.

Jacob tries to put some of the Doctor’s advice into practice during his first interaction with Peggy Rankin, assigning her the role of “Forty-Year-Old-Pickup” in the story he tries to tell himself to move through their encounter. In doing so he proves unable to move from the uncaring outsider perspective. Peggy is a natural point of contrast for Rennie Morgan, and the way that she refuses to assume the role that Jacob has set out for her in their first encounter offers a counterbalance to Rennie’s all-consuming submission to masculine control. But when Jacob sees her again, he assumes a Morgan-esque role aping the attitude and requirements laid down by Morgan to the point of emphasizing his desire with a punch to Peggy’s face. But Jacob doesn’t mean it any more than he means any other position he holds. He considers this encounter to be another round of myhtotherapy and he leaves her with no intention of building a marriage of equals similar to the Morgans. We see a similar development during one of Jacob’s consultations with the Doctor, when he unconsciously adopts the mannerisms and posture of Joe Morgan, taking his role without even being aware of it. The Doctor is practiced at recognizing the actions of the unconscious minds and instantly recognizes what happens, asking Jacob “this confident fellow [he’s] befriended.”[12]

Jacob turns to the bust of Laocoon for inspiration if not guidance. Its impassive features serve as a kind of Rorschach test for Jacob Horner and it becomes for him a “totem figure of inaction”[13] which can seem to reflect Horner’s capricious moods. He can see no reason not to feel manic glee when the bust appears a certain way to him in the morning.

                                                Joe Morgan: Irresistible Rhetoric

Joe Morgan occupies the role of the Father to Jake just as the Doctor does in the early stages of the story, but in many ways to Rennie as well. His will is stronger then the other two legs of the triangle’s, and at the outset he seems to have an air of admirability about him, described as a scout master before he makes his first appearance. Jacob notes that Joe Morgan “had a look about him that suggested early rising, a nutritious diet, and other sorts of virtue.”[14] Jacob notes early on that the relationship between the Morgans is more about control and instruction than conventional notions of marriage. Jacob tellingly mentions that Joe talks to his wife “as if she were a patient of yours,”[15] making explicit the parallel between Joe and Rennie and Jacob and the Doctor.

            Joe Morgan is a man of carefully thought out ethics, taking an extreme subjectivism that prescribes no particular grammar of behavior, but requires only that people act coherently. That is they must be able to justify their actions logically, without merely apologizing for them. This is an important point for Joe, and it is one he makes absolutely clear to his wife with “the irresistible rhetoric”[16] of a punch to the face when she apologizes.

            He is in every conceivable way the opposite of our narrator; indecision is foreign to him.[17] To both Jacob and Rennie, Joe occupies the role of father figure, being stronger and seemingly more able to deal with the world on his terms than ether of them. This dynamic plays itself out over the course of the novel, as it is in their psyches to betray and overcome the father. “We are perfectly familiar with the infantile attitude of boys towards their father; it is composed of the same mixture of reverent submission and mutinous insubordination that we have found in Schreber’s relation with his God.”[18]

            Yet for all the emphasis Rennie puts on her husband’s strength and the degree to which both she and Jacob are in awe of Joe Morgan’s self-assuredness, he is also a child prone to acting out on his impulses. For all his rationality, he is susceptible to both infantile rage and pre-oedipal bouts of sexual release. Not only is he associated with the juvenile activities of the Boy Scouts from early in the novel, but when Jacob and Rennie spy on him through an open window, what they see is a less impressive manifestation of will. Their mutual voyeurism reveals that the private Joe Morgan is a gibbering idiot, dancing around while spewing nonsense and engaging in the dually disgusting activities of masturbation and nose-picking- all while wearing his Boy Scout uniform and acting out a series of militaristic drills. The voyeurs are confronted with a will truly unfettered. Like an id without a superego, Joe Morgan seems prone to acting out his basest impulses.[19]

                                                Rennie Morgan: Complete Zero

Rennie Morgan serves as the center of the tripod, the object of sexual desire that drives the love triangle and the source of its tragic conclusion. Yet she is less sexually interesting to our narrators than she is vaguely interesting. Her husband seems to be the only one to look at her with any sort of active desire for her. She is more or less subservient to Joe Morgan, relying on him for “both the matter and the manner of her thinking.”[20]

            Jacob describes Rennie in terms of her clumsiness again and again. She is a large woman, heavier than our narrator and he seems at least partially threatened by her physicality. As she teaches him how to ride horses, he observes that the activity is perfect for her because it provides a strict guideline of how she is to hold her body, much as Joe provides her a guideline for how to think and much as the Doctor’s interior decorating choices provide an unassailable model for Jacob’s posture in the Advice Room. David Majdiak points out the way Barth also subtly evokes the parallels between The Doctor/Jacob and Joe/Rennie by describing the conspicuously furnitureless living room of the Morgans in similar terms to the spartan Progress and Advice Room.”[21]

            Rennie begins her relationship with Joe by throwing out all opinions of her own and modeling a new set of behaviors based on their discussions. For her, it’s simple; “He’s God,” she said. “He’s just God.”[22] And just as Schreber desired to change himself into a woman so that he could be the object of God’s sexual desire, Rennie divests herself of everything that made her who she was so that she would be desirable to Joe. “I think of Joe like I’d think of God,” she informs Jacob. When he points out how intolerant Joe is, she replies “so is God.”[23] God represented Schreber’s Father, and Joe takes on a fatherly role with Rennie. But as Freud puts it “Through the whole of Schreber’s book there runs the bitter complaint that God, being only accustomed to intercourse with the dead, does not understand living men.”[24] Joe certainly seems at a loss as to normal human interaction. Perhaps driven by proclivity to walk where he pleases and have the paths built around him, he has never felt the need to get close to any other human being besides Rennie and Jacob.


Barth makes the characters interpersonal relationship both explicit and literal when he describes them sitting to discuss Rennie’s pregnancy in a “most embarrassingly perfect equilateral triangle, with the gun in the center.”[25] But geometry can describe more than one condition and the triangle the characters occupy is more than the conventional “love” variety that occurs in fiction. They each occupy an angle of an oedipal triangle as well, although their positions therein can vary slightly and shift over the course of the novel.

Joe first pushes Rennie into spending time with Jacob by inviting him to be her horseback riding partner because he wanted her to “get to know a first-rate mind that was the totally different from his.”[26] It is this opposition that first draws Joe to Jacob during the faculty interview. Jacob is a kind of doppelganger for Joe, and vice versa. The relationship between the two men is one of occasional hostility underscored by subsuming attraction. It is a definite occurrence of Freud’s notion of doubling, whereby the two men become physical symbols to each other of “the primordial narcissism that dominates the mental life of both the child and the primitive man.”[27] Aside from their intellectual engagement, or perhaps because of it, Jacob seems far more interested in Joe than he does in Rennie. His descriptions of her “clumsy” physicality pepper the first half of the novel, and he tells his other sexual conquest that he’s “probably less interested in sex than any other man [she’s] ever met.”[28] Despite his apparent lack of interest, Jacob enters a sexual relationship with Rennie precisely because she is Joe’s wife rather than in spite of it. Even if neither one can fully articulate their feelings, Jacob speaks to Joe with more passion than he can usually muster for any other character in the novel and with his characteristic lack of inhibition Jacob himself wonders “Perhaps it was Joe Morgan, after all, that I loved.”[29] The fact that this strong attraction can play itself out only when “two male friends attain symbolic union by sharing the body of a woman”[30] adds another level of distance and separation. For Patricia Tobin, the relationship between Joe and Jacob can be traced back to Freud’s writings on the anthropological basis of the oedipal conflict. She looks to interpretations of Freud by Anna Freud and Lacanian analyst Jean Laplanche to examine Jacob and Joe as primitive tribesman and chieftain, respectively. She explains their behavior as a “turning round on the self and reversal into the opposite…whereby the instinct replaces an independent object of with the subjects own self, while reversal into the opposite occurs when the instinct transforms its aim from activity to passivity.”[31] That is to say that their interaction is governed by mutual sado-masochism resulting from their inability to reconcile their personal and philosophical point of view. Like two primitive tribesmen who enter into combat but cannot take it to its conclusion, they incorporate their own suffering as a mastery of themselves into an outward-facing aggression where they seek to master each other. This is certainly truer of Joe Morgan’s personality than the eternally vacillating Jacob, but he shows the same tendencies, manifesting his inner suffering as cruelty others, like Rennie, and especially Peggy Rankin.

The Freudian interpretation of the characters relationship as an oedipal triangle is useful because it recognizes the different angles that this interaction occurs down. Jacob is attracted to and frightened by Joe. He is both a father and a rival, although it is a rivalry that Horner seems to actively seek (inasmuch as he is capable of actively seeking anything). For Joe, his expectations of Rennie define her role as a mother and a woman. He becomes angry with her when she cannot live up to her duty to protect him from both Jacob’s philosophical position, and his act of cuckolding. As for Rennie, she is caught between two warring fathers, and neither one seems willing or able to protect her from the other. Indeed, Joe purposely forces her to continue sleeping with Jacob despite her strong objections. Love and hate become as intertwined as sexual arousal and protection from unwanted advances. Multiplicity of emotion abounds, as Harris points out the way in which Jacob’s ability to occupy different states at the same time (mirrored by Rennie’s assertion to Jacob that if she loves him, she hates him with equal intensity) is similar to Freud’s location of obsessional neurosis in the chronic coexistence of love and hatred, felt with equal intensity towards the same person.”[32]

In addition to Oedipal correspondences, the characters also embody (with minor theoretical shoe-horning) the three parts of Freud’s ubiquitous structural theory of mind. In this construction Joe Morgan is the super-ego, constraining the desires of the Hornerian id. The super-ego retains the character of the father,[33] and Joe Morgan is an authorial father figure to both of the other main characters. Jacob is the id, whose impish desires and lack of self control drive the plot forward. His Cosmopsis complicates his position, for he is able to feel several desires simultaneously and so his actions can be as unpredictable as the weather, but no matter which role he assigns himself he is driven by the pleasure principle. He is “consistently capable of sexual desire, animal-self-preservation, male vanity, eating, etc….a protean, chameleon human nature that will never identify itself with any single civilization.”[34] If we look to Jacob Horner as the id because of his curious impulsiveness, we must keep in mind that it is a carefully constructed impulsiveness, stemming from the Doctor’s prescription “Above all, act impulsively; don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives or you’re lost.”[35] Rennie, then, is left in the position of ego mediating between the extremes of the other two, both subject and object of their conflicts. She is submissive to both men, and though she professes to loath Jacob she does keep returning to his rented room and acting as a literal go-between for the two men. She is as embroiled as any ego would be with the other constituent parts. “The ego is not sharply separated from the id; its lower portion merges into it…. But the repressed merges into the id as well, and is merely a part of it. The repressed is only cut off sharply from the ego by the resistances of repression; it can communicate with the ego through the id.”[36]

And she certainly tries repression, especially during their encouraged tryst when she seemed to Horner “warm, strong, even gay and a little wild. We made love zestfully at once.”[37] She has convinced herself that her marital infidelity and her husband’s anger is unimportant in the grand scheme of things and puts the pain out of her mind long enough to get drunk on Muscatel with Jacob. But it doesn’t last and she returns to her projection of anger onto Jacob. This is her first stance and her primary defense mechanism to the probing disapproval of the super ego. In her mind Jacob is the seducer and bears the guilt and shame that she is trying to suppress even as her husband makes her face it by interrogating her down to the level of preferred sexual position.

In keeping with the tripartite nature of the interpretation, there is a third way of reading the relationship between Jacob, Joe, and Rennie. In addition to the Oedipal and Structural models, their dynamic also represents a philosophical debate. Jacob and Joe are the primary movers; the two men represent extreme caricatures of nihilism and existentialism, respectively. As David Kerner puts it “Like Morgan, Horner doesn’t merely have this view. He is this view.”[38] As Jacob Horner narrates “Joe was the Reason, or Being…; I was the Unreason, or Not-Being; and the two of us were fighting without quarter for possession of Rennie like God and Satan for the Soul of Man.”[39] For this unhappy trio, even the mythotherapeutic scene of Cuckolded Husband Confronting the Friend Who Betrayed Him turns into a philosophical aside on the nature of guilt and responsibility. Joe, while prone to violence is more concerned with pursuing his own thought problems than in reacting emotionally to the adultery of his wife and best friend. As Joe says to Jacob: “Not only don’t I have any philosophy about sexual morals; I don’t seem to have any automatic feelings about them either. But Rennie did. Very strong ones. I’m sure she couldn’t have defended them rationally- no ethical program can be defended rationally clear down the line.”[40]  And it is down this line that Barth takes us over the course of the novel. It leads Jake ultimately back into Cosmopsis.

 Jake cannot choose any outcome from the possibilities that he imagines and so enters a catatonic state of hysterical indecision, called “Cosmopsis” in the novel. “Bereft of any consistent identity, his inner self is a realm of unpredictable moods, and he is incapable of action.”[41] When the Doctor comes upon Jacob in the train station (presumably the same station that Jacob returns to via taxi in the novel’s terminal paragraph) he finds “a victim of what the doctor describes as ‘Cosmopsis,’ a nihilistic worldview that renders choice or action irrelevant, and therefore impossible.”[42] By taking rational thought to its extreme conclusion, Jacob enters a kind of paralysis of will. His hysteria manifests as a kind of obsessional mulling of possible avenues of behavior without settling on any one. The result is similar to the hysterics Freud noted who were unable to act because their intellect had “established a dictatorship over the human psyche.”[43] The only thing Jacob can do is sit on his bench and await the coming of his mysterious savior.

Jake’s therapist is never referred to by name, but his shadow hangs heavy over the proceedings. It is his advice to Jake that leads to the action of the plot and it is he who performs the fatal abortion that drives Jake back into his care. He is both midwife and euthanatist of the story. Indeed, Barth’s original title for the novel was “What to Do Until the Doctor Comes,” so he is clearly central to the story, to the point that Patricia Tobin ascribes to him “much of the humor of the book, all of its sanity, and most of its metaphysical affirmations.”[44] His therapies are so important to the plot that we can read the entire novel, which Jacob writes two years after the events described, as a form of scriptotherapy. As a stand-in for psychology in general, it is tempting to draw some comparisons between the mysterious Doctor and Freud. But it ultimately a fruitless temptation, insofar as it reveals very little besides Barth nudge-nudge-wink-wink piss-taking of the notion of psychiatry.

While the Doctor embodies many of the qualities of authoritative thought as “a combination of parodies of God, Sartre, and Heidegger,”[45] he is most clearly a stand in for Freud. In Barth’s very first description of the Doctor he gives us a variation on Freudian tropes. The book opens in the Progress and Advice Room, where the Doctor sits across from his patient and doles out his prescriptions while smoking a cigar. The Doctor’s African-American ethnicity aside, he could easily serve as a fictional analogue to Sigmund Freud.

He makes it clear to Jacob during their first meeting that differs from Freud in that he is less concerned with the root causes of hysteria or Cosmopsis, but in the way he can treat his patents at the Remobilization farm. He is gruff and portrays a merely teleological method of treatment “to him the only relevant question about a therapy is how far it life-sustaining, or life-furthering.”[46] While Freud’s entire system of psychoanalysis was predicated on the notion of discovering and isolating the root cause of neuroses, his ultimate goal was to integrate a drive or desire into the higher self and end the dissonance caused by its suppression; his methods were not entirely without practicality.

The Doctor seems fond of his theories, and pragmatic in their application. Like Freud, he is concerned with the application of his techniques to improve the every day life for those of his patients for whom that is a realistic goal. During Jacob’s description of the Remobilization Farm, Barth has the Doctor implement a variety of unorthodox therapies, including Sexual Therapy, Informational Therapy pugilistic therapy, Agapothaethpy, Mythotherapy, and scriptotherapy. The Doctor’s Therapies are so outrageous that they cause Jacob to question his standing in the medical community. The fact that Jacob sees him as “a crank-though perhaps not an ineffective one,” “some combination of quack and prophet,” and with “elements of faith healer and armchair Freud thrown in”[47] and yet seem eager to follow his prescriptions betrays the utter dependence Jacob has on the Doctor. In the absence of any will of his own he forced to rely on the will of others, dubious as it may be. This last is what purportedly leads Jacob Horner to write the novel, but throughout the course of the narrative he both unconsciously and later consciously) utilizes the Doctor’s idea of mythotherapy as a guiding principle. He advises Jacob to approach life as a series of roles, similar to the Jungian notion of archetypes. In the words of the Doctor himself “It’s extremely important that you learn to assume these masks wholeheartedly. Don’t think there’s anything behind them: ego means I, and I means ego, and the ego by definition is a mask.”[48]

The Doctor does serve as a passable stand-in, but Barth is less concerned with an in-depth exploration of psychoanalysis than in painting psychological insight in the broadest of strokes. Barth creates the Doctor as a nod to Freud but he portrays therapy as an alternative to the nihilism of Jacob Horner and the subjectivism of Joe Morgan. The chief method of treatment for Jacob is mythotherapy, or the donning of masks. It is something Freud would recognize but on the surface it seems to have more in common with the notions of archetypes put forth by Freud’s former student Jung.

Despite the fact that The Doctor is not a Freudian, the theories of Freud are a strong component of the book. If nothing else, his notion of the erotic drive plays out with the characters. As Jacob Horner says “The dance of sex; if one had no other reason for choosing to subscribe to Freud, what could be more charming than to believe that the whole vaudeville of the world, the entire dizzy circus of history is but a fancy mating dance.”[49] It is no fault of Freud that the dance ends badly.

The real problem that Jake faces is that he can recognize too many senses, can occupy too many potential mental states at once. This has caused him to be, in the purest sense of the term, an asshole. He has trouble relating to others and he tends to see them more as objects. Like his hero Laocoon, he is impassive until the very end of his own story (at least the one he narrates us to us) and is unable to avert the tragedy of Rennie’s death. And it is a tragedy, especially for Jacob. He is, as Charles Harris puts it, “torn between a desire to feel and a fear of feeling, his taut ambivalence once again approaches paralysis.”[50] John Barth seems to favor the triad as a model for exploring human interaction. It is a motif that pops up in several of his works because it offers him several permutations to explore and is thus fertile ground creating conflict, the key ingredient of any work of fiction.[51] In The End of the Road, the conflict is largely internal. We know from the start that things are going to end badly for our narrator and over the course of the novel, nothing much happens. There is randomness to the events of the story, a haphazard coming together of elements that operate below the level of human will. The action of the story occurs in the territory that Freud mapped out for us earlier in the last century. For Jacob, Rennie, and Joe the drama in their lives wholly psychodrama and despite Joe’s obsession with explaining his own action and feelings (thereby staying consistent with himself) he is taken in by events that defy his interpretations. He cannot explain his wife’s intercourse with Jacob, and he cannot come to terms with her feelings in the matter. These characters are cruel to be sure, but it is a cruelty they understand: the indifferent cruelty of rational thought. When Joe socks Rennie or when Jacob belittles Peggy, they do so because neither one is capable of any sort of empathy or understanding as human beings as subjects. They are too rational for that. There is nothing rational about the affair. Neither party can explain their actions in any way that makes sense to the ultra-rational Joe. Like the component parts of the psyche, they are each pulling to fulfill a role they don’t completely understand. Barth clues us in to the importance of psychological states with his description of the Doctor and his strange therapies. But ultimately, they fail as much as the nihilistic/existentialist extremes of Jacob and Joe. By looking at the novel through the lens of psychoanalytic theory, we are able to explore the different angles of desire and suppression of the main characters. Like any postmodern novelist worth his salt, Barth defies any single reading. Like the human psyche, the relationship between the main characters can shift wildly from rational discourse to violent scuffles, to unexpected coupling. No one holds any one position for very long and their oedipal triangle cuts several different ways. Joe and Jacob are both fathers to Rennie, but she is also mother to both. And there is all manner of attraction and repulsion between all legs of the triad, with a multiplicity of emotions and desires, some recognized and some not. This, combined with Jacob Horner’s steadfast refusal to adhere to any one, consistent sense of identity makes him an excellent analysand, and his story makes an excellent case study.

[1]Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989) 23.


[2] TV: David Chase, The Sopranos

[3] Sigmund Freud,  The Uncanny  New York: Penguin, 2003.

[4]  Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror (New York: Penguin, 2003) 55.

[5] Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (New York: Haperperrenial, 2006).

[6] Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train (1951); screenplay: Richard Chandler & Czenzi Ormonde.

[7] Freud, Lectures 13.

[8] John Barth, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road (New York: Anchor Books, 1988).


[9] Barth, 274.

[10]Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-structuralism and Postmodernism. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993) 16.


[11] Barth, 261.

[12] Barth, 336.

[13] Zack Bowen, A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994) 19.



[14] Barth, 271.

[15] Barth, 295.

[16] Barth, 298.

[17] Barth, 284.

[18] Sigmund Freud, Three Case Histories (New York: Touchstone, 1993) 127.

[19] Barth, 319.

[20] Barth 283.

[21] David Majdiak,  “Barth and the Representation of Life.” Critical Essays on John Barth.

Edited by Joseph Waldmeir. (Boston: G.G. Hall & Co., 1980) 104.

[22] Barth, 385.

[23] Barth, 312.

[24] Freud, Histories 100.

[25] Barth, 394.

[26] Barth, 313.

[27] Freud, Uncanny 143.

[28] Barth, 345.

[29] Barth, 394.

[30] Richard Noland, “John Barth and the Novel of Comic Nihilism” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Autumn, 1966), 242.



[31]Patricia Tobin, John Barth and the Anxiety of Influence. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992) 42.


[32] Charles Harris, Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983) 36.

[33] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962).

[34]David Kerner,  “Psychodrama in Eden” Critical Essays on John Barth. Edited by Joseph Waldmeir (Boston: G.G. Hall & Co., 1980) 93.


[35] Barth, 333.

[36] Freud, The Ego and the Id

[37] Barth, 377.

[38] Kerner, 94.

[39] Barth, 377.

[40] Barth 362.

[41] Larry McCaffery (ed), Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986) 258.

[42] Bowen, 14.

[43] Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis. (New York: Penguin, 2003) 161.

[44] Tobin, 49.

[45] Bowen, 14.

[46] Majdiak, 98.

[47] Barth, 334.

[48] Barth, 339.

[49] Barth, 341.

[50] Harris, 38.

[51] Berndt Clavier, John Barth and Postmodernism. (New York: Peter Lang  2007).


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